Pedagogy & Product in Pedagogy Products
“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
— Groucho Marx
“We’re not so different, you and I.”
— Every Movie Villain
Before filling myself to the brim in grad school with learning theory, I cut my teeth in a startup incubator preaching the Gospel of Lean product development. Two days after earning my masters, I started my first job in EdTech. I had the faintest idea how the two worlds overlapped.
Early in my first instructional design role, though proud of what I self-righteously saw as the noble path, I found myself routinely envious of product circles in the “attention economy.” From afar, the Valley prophets appeared further along in their product management journeys, so adept and enlightened among the profession’s ambiguity.
Some amount of jealousy was multiplied by a chasm I sensed but could not cross, a gap between Product People and Pedagogy People. Despite apparent symmetries, (learning analytics<>platform data; UX<>LX; learning outcomes<>user stories, gamification<>ZPD, cognitive biases<>cognitive sciences, etc.) the two worlds often feel distant from one another.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned from experience as well as watching peers I admire, on how to find a home for popular product management methods and mantras within Education. In the hopes of expediting the same path to clarity for others facing this gap, I’ve detailed three examples below of how several of the most popular product management maxims crossover into the field of learning design.
Delight the customer…and the business.
The most important mental shift I’ve had in my work so far is seeing business value as a creative constraint. In the past, what limited me was not a lack of imagining solutions to a defined problem, but an inability to prioritize problems that mutually and significantly benefited both learners and the growth or efficiency of the business. Much of the dialogue in learning and design is rightly directed on efficacy, access, and equality. This deserves its own space separate from talk of cost savings, margins, perceived marketing value and the like. When discussed in tandem, however, the route to progressing on these fronts can often become more clear.
Dual Delight In Action
A recent example where I have business and learner value share an overlap is when teams focus on instructor retention through professional development and place a deliberate focus on improving the instructor journey. An increase in the retention of strong instructors often correlates with gains in students’ mastery, confidence, and on-time graduation. On the business side, instructor retention and development improves operations by reducing recruiting costs, enabling the confident increase in class sizes, and reducing student support requests. Finding more opportunities like this have provided more funding and support for work that, without a clear business benefit, might not have gotten the same attention.
Learn early and often.
Arguably no Lean principle has been as highly regarded as rapid testing and learning cycles throughout a product’s lifecycle.
There are myriad strategies to chose from, each striving to reign back bias to uncover genuine insight.
Many of these strategies translate well to early stage work such as observing pains in their point of need and evaluating your painkillers. A popular example of this, particularly among startups, is to have people “vote with their feet”for courses that are not offered yet. On its courses page, DesignLab hosts a survey where leads can vote for the course they’d like to see developed next.
The bevy of recommended hacks for user testing higher fidelity prototypes nearer launch, however, can often feel less feasible for learning products, and a fear of opaque, vapid, verbose, or misleading first drafts can build real dread.
Research in Action
While ultimately empathetic concerns, Learning can’t be afraid of itself. In fact, I have seen some of my peers across EdTech find creative ways to fish where the fish are to uncover significant findings.
One common method is to take to LinkedIn and the popular forums within a domain, and find people who are clearly articulating a need that aligns with the value prop you aspire to provide. Reach out to them and engage them in testing your early material, evaluating their experience with research exercises like observation or pass/fail tests.
Another method I’ve seen is building an unbranded or personal site where your prototype lives, and promoting it through thought leaders, social channels, or a small ad spend on intent-based searches. An easy to follow trail of referrals and promoters of a post, along with data around user behaviors on the site, makes it easier to test assumptions and performance against specific goals and identify participants in follow-up interviews. Done otherwise, these insights could take considerable time to gather after a new launch.
Friction is Foe, Not Friend
A fear of friction — any complexity along a user journey that keeps a user from completing a task or re-engaging with your product— is in large part what has transformed several companies from nouns into verbs.
It’s this area and the ways companies have reduced friction (infinite scroll, auto play next episode, buy-now-pay-later micro lending, etc.) that is ripe to meditate on relative to EdTech. These examples don’t and shouldn’t provide a playbook of features and interactions to copy, but rather their underlying focus represent an ingenuity that seeks greater user engagement and progression.
Among learning circles, we often speak of friction in relation to cognition — how to reduce extraneous cognitive load, the zone of proximal development, or reducing social barriers to entry. Externally facing, how the delivery modality and material provide convenience and peace of mind is often promoted — flipped digital classrooms optimize live time while providing flexibility; material developed in-step with industry optimizes time for in-demand skill development.
At a certain point in the near future, however, multi-channel delivery, thoughtful experience design, and relevant content will become table stakes in EdTech the way equivalents in the streaming, scrolling, sharing, and shopping wars have been for several years. What competition and evolving user expectations have encouraged in these spaces is a focus on reducing customer friction in ways that offer value to a broad cross-section of users.
This focus is a rich space to play in with EdTech, because past a point, the efficacy of broadly applying learning science research is less certain because of the parameters the research was conducted under. In contrast, digital behaviors and expectations are generally easier to test, resonate with a wider audience that is easier to identify, and benefit from constant exploration and documentation that is shared by teams across a variety of industries.
Frictionless Classes in Action
A great example of reducing friction can be seen in Section 4’s course experience. In one of their courses, what stood out was not the content or delivery method, though they were well-executed and convenient; rather what stood out was the small touch points that reduced friction to actions that have critical learning value: course progress, community engagement, and near-term application.
- Course progress was supported through texts and emails informing you when an upcoming module was released or when a live lecture was a day away. Important updates and reminders were above the fold at login.
- Community engagement, both as a spectator or participant, was encouraged with pinned slacks that highlighted each day’s most insightful questions or robust threaded conversations. Teaching Assistants regularly moved discussions forward in interesting ways.
- Lastly, near-term application was made easier with physical pocketbooks and digital slide decks that summarized the essential course information into a few pages.
Everything is a Remix
The Ivory Tower EdTech seeks to deconstruct can in fact be inadvertently replicated. Tech has applied research from the cognitive sciences to drive deeper and longer engagements with their products.
If learning product teams we’re to similarly look over the fence and remix Tech’s most common research methods and maxims, while retaining the academic reflex to question assumptions and maintain a bedrock belief in the value of inroads to a better quality of life, the rebel idealism that brought many of us to this space has the potential to push us past our status quo.